Tainted Freedom

Some say Sam’s addicted to magic. Some say she’s insane. Others think she’s bossy. A few even love her. No one doubts she’s powerful.
But is she good?
She has killed hundreds, maybe even thousands including her own kind. She has taken on the United States’ government and made them squirm. She has killed her own lover and put her child in the care of an accident-prone werewolf all in order to see her people freed from the Reservations.
Can Samantha Gollet, of all people, find redemption while trapped on the blood-soaked battlefield?

 

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Excerpt

Chapter One
Sam braced herself in the corner of the club’s delivery truck. The perimeter was lined with those that could stand, the center littered with prone bodies draped over each other until they looked like a woven blanket of heads and bandages. She ducked down to see into the cab of the small semi truck. Otto drove with Deats and a few others sitting on the bench, each passenger holding a child on their laps. The entire population of the Reservation—well, what was left of it—was in that delivery truck or in the school bus trailing them.
So many had died. Both humans and mystics alike.
And Sam knew it was just the beginning. There were four more Reservations needing to be taken down, their captives saved. But how could she do that with her troops of walking wounded? Even she had a few scrapes that hadn’t healed. For once, though, her gift was not interested in filling her tank. It had had enough of power in the battle. All different kinds of powers had filled her. Now it wanted nothing more than to rest.
She wanted to rest too, but it was impossible to do so standing in the back of a swaying truck. Peeking through the window into the cab again, Sam noticed the first hints of pink in the distant sky. “Pull over, Deats,” she ordered despite the closed window. Deats’ vampire hearing would allow him to hear her over the rumble of the engine and squeaking of tires.
They were well south of Chicago, taking the county roads in the vague direction of Florida. The truck bounced off the soft edge of the dual carriageway. Sam assumed the school bus followed. Those in the front seats of the semi-truck jumped out, hurrying around to open the back door. Sam climbed over the prone bodies and jumped off the tailgate. Other uninjured mystics came out to stretch while the healers checked on the wounded, needing no instruction from her.
“We need to get the vampires into the truck before the sun rises,” Sam announced.
“We need food,” added Ryan from his place at the end of the truck where he had been examining a patient.
Sam glanced around. They were stopped at the side of a desolate road. Half a mile away, a small light shone. She nodded toward the light. Deats, with his superhuman sight, glanced at it.
“A house.”
“Good. Is there a ‘sleep’ fae?” Sam called out over the crowd.
The mystics began to whisper the request through the masses and into the school bus where others remained. Sam glanced back and forth waiting for someone to come forward. When she eyed the truck again, she saw a small hand raised above the piles of bleeding bodies.
She sighed. Of course, their only mystic who could manipulate sleep had to be a child and a wounded child at that. Sam pointed to the van. Deats and Otto jumped forward. Thankfully the child lay across other wounded mystics. With Ryan”s directions, they pulled the child out. A large gash ran across his abdomen, from his left shoulder to his right hip. Sam wondered how the child had lived long enough to receive aid.
“There’s got to be another,” Ryan said, placing his hand on the wound and pouring his gift into the boy. Like all fae gifts, a healer’s gift could reach its limit. Ryan had been healing on and off for the last ten hours or more. His gift did little for the wound. Still, Sam saw a little color come back into his cheeks.
Sam looked down on the boy, squatting beside his prone body. “You up for being a hero?”
“No,” snapped Ryan. “He’s a child. He is too injured.”
Sam didn’t take her eyes from the boy. “He’s dying, Ryan. And he knows it.”
The boy gave the slightest nod.
“And going with you will just speed up his death!”
Sam wanted to cry. Sam wanted to be the moral one in the group, to fight for what was right, but she was too busy fighting for their survival. She couldn’t get caught up in things like right and wrong, or child versus adult. She bit down on her lip, distracting herself from the tension forming in her throat.
“It is his choice. He can die in the back of a truck or providing food and aid to his people. It is his choice.”
“He’s staying here,” argued Ryan.
“I want to help,” the child whispered.
Ryan squatted down on his other side, but the boy’s eyes remained on Sam. “We read a book in school. In it a great mage said ‘The only thing we have control over is how we live, how we use our time.’” The boy gasped. “I want to use my time well.”
Sam smiled, doing her best to hide the sorrow building inside her her chest. “Good boy.” She stroked his head before standing up. “Otto, get our fighters. You and I and the boy will go to the house. We’ll take what food we can find while the boy keeps the humans asleep. They won’t know until breakfast that we’ve ransacked the place. Best we can do.”
“I’ll come too,” announced Deats.
“No. You stay here.”
Deats came up to her side until his chest nearly grazed her shoulder. “Who put you in charge?”
She turned, closing what little distance there was between them. “Would you like to try it? See if they will follow you?” she whispered.
Deats’ eyes flicked from side to side as he considered her words. “Please, let me come.”
Sam knew the concession of turning it into a request ate at him. She gripped his arm and squeezed. “The sun is close to rising. Your power is waning. But you can still represent the leadership. You can keep them calm. You don’t need your power to care for these people. You might need your power where we go.”
Deats let out a low breath, clearly annoyed, before nodding. “Fine.”
“Thank you.” Sam turned to see Otto had already gathered a few strong-looking men. They looked sturdy, but with mystics, looks could be deceiving. They might look strong but only be able to elevate a feather. “Bring him.”
Two of the men carefully lifted the boy into a sitting position and carried him between their bodies. They walked down the deserted highway. It took them a few minutes, but they finally turned onto the dirt driveway connecting the old ranch house and the highway. The horizon was bright pink by the time they reached the house.
“They still asleep?” Sam whispered to the boy.
“Yes.”
“‘Kay. If they start to wake, you put them back to sleep. Agreed?”
The boy nodded. “Got this, Sam. Go get the food.”
With her cohorts, Sam snuck up to the front door. Otto knelt and went to work on the lock. In short order, it clicked. He turned the handle and gave it the slightest push. After a quick glance at the boy left propped up under a tree, Sam slipped into the dark house. Otto and the other two men followed. They quickly moved into the kitchen and began pulling anything and everything from the cabinets as quietly as possible.
Sam checked a door beside the fridge and found the laundry room. She pulled three plastic baskets off the dryer and brought them to the kitchen. Sam began piling the food into the basket. They were nearly done when Otto’s elbow caught a jar of pickles, sending the jar crashing to the hard tile floor. Everyone froze, holding their breath as they waited for the family to come charging in with a baseball bat in hand.
Nothing happened beyond the appearance of a white cat. The feline came to the edge of the puddle, gave the pickle juice a single sniff, wrinkled its flat nose, and sauntered away. Sam glanced up at the others before continuing her work. Otto and the two other men picked up the baskets. They slipped back out of the house, locking the door as they went. They reached the tree, barely ten minutes after leaving the boy behind. Sam dropped to her knees, her fingers groping the boy’s neck. The skin was cold to the touch. No pulse thumped against her fingers.
Knowing something is going to happen and having it happen are always two different things. Tears pressed again Sam’s eyes. But she couldn’t cry now. There was too much stuff to do, too many people to save. Just not him. Sam grabbed the boy’s arm and pulled him up over her shoulder in a fireman’s lift.
“You got that?” Otto whispered.
Sam nodded, her throat too constricted to speak. She would have had to fall on her own face before she relinquished the body of the small child.

In record time, they had the food passed out, Otto behind the wheel of the semi-truck, and Sam in the passenger seat with two children between them. It wasn’t long before the children were asleep, one using Otto’s thigh as a pillow and the other tucked under Sam’s arm. Sam glanced at Otto over their heads, a tired smile on her lips.
He smiled back. It wasn’t often Otto smiled. Sam considered spending her life trying to make Otto smile. It wasn’t a bad plan for her life. But like any plan for her inhumanly-long life, it depended on her getting free from the world of underground warfare. For Ruth’s sake, she would escape the battlefield one day. That had to be her focus rather than what man she would unite with. Her precious daughter needed to be her only focus, but for now, her daughter was safest with Breena and Luke.
“Go to sleep, Sam,” Otto whispered, cutting into her thoughts.
“What about you?”
“Well, darling, I’m driving. It would be dangerous if I slept now.”
Sam snorted, rolling her eyes. “Wake me up if you need me to take over.”
He nodded. Careful not to wake the child under her arm, Sam wiggled into the corner of the seat, resting her head against the glass. Before she could even wonder if she could get comfortable, she was drifting off.
A name badge danced before her eyes in the dying light, momentarily set aglow by a distant explosion. Sam had seen the name tag before, but she couldn’t make her mind recognize the shapes.
Sam woke with a jerk, her head bouncing against the glass window. She quickly relaxed, hoping Otto hadn’t noticed that she had woken up. She had a lot to think about and had little peace and quiet to do said thinking. Keeping her eyes slitted, she spied Otto. He seemed focused on the road.
She couldn’t reconcile the dream with what she wanted. It was one thing to know the truth and another to accept it. Her mind in the dream might not have been able to decipher the name tag, but she knew the meaning all the same. Or at least, she thought she knew the meaning.
Oh, Philip, she thought as pressure began to build behind her eyes. She wanted to take her phone out and search the list of the dead, but the minute they began to run, Deats had taken away all the cellphones from those outside the reservation and tossed them into the river to float away. She was stuck with parsing out what few memories she had of the attack and guessing. She could be wrong. He might still be alive. Sam clung to the hope that Philip had survived her attack.
In her defense, she had been a werewolf when she attacked him, and he had been working for the National Guard to keep the mystics under human control. He had made his choice. And so had she.
Sam opened her eyes, moisture leaking free and rolling down her cold cheeks, and eyed Otto. Even with the small scars marring his face from years of fighting, he looked peaceful as he drove. She wondered what he was thinking.
Did she love Philip? Surely, if she loved him she would never have killed him—werewolf or not. If they were meant to be together… Sam shied away from this train of thought, annoyed at her own mind. She didn’t believe in things like fate or destiny. If Philip was alive, he was out of her reach. They had both made their choices, leading them away from each other.
She had killed a lot of people since that day so long ago when Lee showed up outside her father’s door and dragged her into the internal wars of the Reservation, but none of them had even been a blip on her moral radar. Philip’s death, if he was indeed dead, brought all the other killings into the light. Was she really nothing but a murderer? All evidence pointed to yes. She was a murderer a thousand times over.
Her tears rolled hot and heavy down her cheeks, finally freed of their confines behind her eyelids. She willed herself to hold still so as not to wake the child tucked under her arm, but small sobs still escaped her.
A warm hand pressed against her shoulder. Otto didn’t say anything, but kept his hand on her shoulder and let her cry in silence.
What a mess she had made of her chance at freedom. She had fought everyone who tried to help her, and now she had destroyed the reservation. Oh, many claimed it as a victory, but she knew better. The long list of the dead—human and mystic—told the truth of it all.
The worst part was the four Reservations still standing in the United States. Each one needed to come down. She could hardly free one Reservation and leave the others to rot. If only a small portion of the mystics were free of the walls, they would be outlaws. If all mystics within the U.S. were released, the government would have to make a change.
But there was no fight left in her. The idea of going up against the humans again made her stomach ache and her tears increase. All Sam wanted was to reunite with her daughter and vanish into the backwater towns of midwest America to live out her life in peace. But she couldn’t do that until the walls came down.
And they had a limited amount of time to do so. After all, the rumor was the humans had a way to deaden a mystic’s powers. It was a shot they masqueraded as nothing but vitamins. They had to take out the reservations before the government had a chance to disseminate the shots. If they attacked a reservation after the shots were used, the captives inside would have no hope of escape. They would be useless—sitting ducks in a barrel, or however that saying went.
Besides the injections, they had the issue of public relations. A lot of people had died, and the world would soon know about it. If Sam wasn’t careful, they would lose the support of the common man. Before the attack, it seemed the mystics had some support from the general population. After the attack? Sam wasn’t so sure.
Slowly, the tears dried up, but as they did, other sensations took the forefront. Her fingers shook and her body ached—not just from an awkward sleeping position. No, the ache went a lot deeper than just her sore muscles. She tried not to think of Otto’s power, but the feeling of his hand on her shoulder made it impossible. Otto’s power would scratch the constant itch that was her fae gift. Her power craved the power of others. Every minute of every day.
Sam flexed her jaw, realizing she had been grinding her teeth in an effort to keep her fae gift in check. A little sip from Otto and her gift would settle and she could go back to sleep. Just a little, her gift chanted to her, almost as though it was its own persona. She took a deep breath, slowly letting it out in an effort to fight the craving. Sam flinched, the gift slamming into her proverbial boundaries with such force it hurt.
Sam reached up and covered Otto’s hand with her own. His simple touch would have to be enough for now.

Chapter Two
Breena stared at the phone in her hand. It hadn’t rung once since Sam put it in her hands. Then again, it couldn’t ring when it was turned off. Six p.m. That’s what Sam had said. Once she felt it was safe to reunite with Ruth, she would call at six p.m. Breena glanced at the clock in their new car—purchased with cash for a few hundred dollars. Thankfully, Luke knew enough to keep the old piece of crap running. A 2000 Buick wasn’t exactly old enough to be a classic, but plenty old enough to make the journey risky.
Five more minutes before she could expect to hear from Sam. She wouldn’t turn the phone on until just before six. All phones had GPS trackers in them. It was risky enough to turn it on at all if the U.S. government was after them. After all, if they had custody of Ruth they could manipulate Sam into doing anything. They had to keep Ruth out of the hands of the government if they hoped to achieve their mission.
Luke, currently behind the wheel, kept them moving. Finally, the clock changed to five fifty-nine. With a long breath, Breena pressed the power button. Half a minute later, the phone came to life. She stared at it for the next five minutes. That was the agreed upon time—six o’clock for five minutes.
When the agonizing minutes ended, her shoulders drooped and she began powering off the phone. “Off,” she announced to Luke.
He took the next turn. Breena examined the specialized map they had printed off at a local shop, finding the road they had just turned onto. Each time they turned on the phone they changed directions for at least an hour. If they were leaving any breadcrumbs, they wouldn’t make sense to those finding them.
“Nothing,” she whispered.
Luke reached over the center console of the car and gripped her hand. “That’s good, babe. If they were done already then they would have failed at freeing all of the reservations. It’s gonna take some time.”
She nodded, her eyes still on the dead phone. They were in the middle of Nebraska on a road too minuscule to even be on their map. By the looks of it, the road was only there to connect the local farms to each other. Barren fields, brown for the winter, stretched out on either side as far as the eye could see. One small green space in the distance caught Breena’s eyes.
She watched as the greener field drew closer, catching sight of gray stones poking out through the overgrown grass. It wasn’t until they were alongside the cemetery and Ruth began wailing in her car seat that Breena realized what the gray stones were. Breena quickly came to life, unbuckling and half climbing into the backseat to see what was wrong with Ruth.
The infant had gone from peacefully sleeping to wailing her infantile battle cry. Ruth’s tiny little face had turned a reddish purple. Her mouth was open, drool lining her lips and gums, as she screamed. Her fists, curled around wet fingers, waved as though battling unseen forces.
Breena was about to tell Luke to pull over when Ruth stopped crying. As quickly as it had begun, her tantrum stopped. Her mouth closed, her flushed face turned pale as quickly as humanly possible, and her tiny hands took a firm grip on her blankets. Breena, still kneeling on her seat and wedged between the two front seats over the armrest, glanced up to see the green patch of grass fading into the distance.
“What was that about?” Luke asked, eyes still on the road.
Breena reached over the rear-facing car seat and popped the binky back into the cooing mouth before turning and plopping back into her seat. She stared out the window at the dead field. “You’re not gonna believe this,” she finally said, “but I think Ruth was upset by the cemetery.”
Luke chuckled. “Whatdaya mean?”
“Like she started the minute we were alongside it. And she stopped the second we passed it.”
“Weird. Well, before meeting you guys, I would have said that’s crazy… but now…” He shrugged.
“She is the product of a Djinni.”
Luke nodded.
“And she’s granddaughter one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.”
“Whatever that means,” agreed Luke. They sat in silence for another moment. “At least she’s not crying.”
“Small mercies.”

Light overwhelmed his senses. He was cold, despite the scratchy blanket draped over his legs. More light filled his eyes after a quick blink. It seemed to come from everywhere. The ceiling was aglow, the walls were white. He couldn’t think beyond the bright light. He couldn’t even hear. Slowly, sounds began to penetrate the light. It was a low noise, its tone rising and falling as though someone was talking without the expectation of anyone listening to them. The tones shifted again and again almost like an image coming into focus.
As the noise approached the realm of a human voice, a shadow crossed over one of the sources of light. It shifted around the glowing room. He blinked again and again, slowly bringing the room into focus. Fluorescent lights glowed above him, accented by light of a different hue from somewhere behind him. Light also streamed in from a large window. Finally, he lifted his head.
For some reason, his head felt as though it weighed a few thousand pounds. He saw his bare leg poking out of the blanket, part of it swathed in bandaging, before his head thumped back onto a soft surface.
“Whoa, there…” began the voice from before. “Corporal Werner. Let’s keep it slow.” The nurse in question stepped into his line of sight, a clear tube in her hand. She did something to it before releasing it to drop back.
Philip groaned, unable to do more.
“Sshh,” continued the nurse. “Don’t try to talk. Your neck took some serious damage. Let’s just stay calm.”
A second after the nurse spoke, Philip realized he was on the verge of a panic attack. The annoying beep that had been hovering on the peripheral of his awareness sped up, making him even more nervous. Once again, the nurse seemed to read his mind, switching the sound off.
She took his hand. “Breathe with me, Corporal. You’re okay. You’re safe. I’m not going anywhere.”
Philip focused on her voice, doing his best to match his breathing with the rise and fall of her chest. Flashes of the past reminded him why he was lying in a hospital bed and who had put him there. Though images of a wolf flashed before his eyes, he knew deep down inside it wasn’t a wolf at all. It was S-s-s…
“Just breathe, Corporal.” The nurse sighed before hitting a button above his bed. The door burst open and a team of workers poured into the room.
“What do we got?” the leading woman asked, tablet in hand.
“He just woke up and immediately began to panic. Heart rate one-twelve. Oh-two at ninety-seven percent.”
The doctor poked at her tablet. “Okay, let’s do two milligrams Lorazepam.”
A second later, the room went hazy and Philip’s muscles relaxed even as more images of Samantha passed in front of his eyes. Fear overwhelmed him. His body just didn’t realize it. As the medicine passed deeper into his system, even the fear faded. Finally, he closed his eyes and drifted off again.
When Philip woke the second time, the nurse was nowhere to be seen, but he was not alone. Not by a long shot. “Lieutenant Colonel?” Philip asked, his voice coming out in a raspy whisper.
Lieutenant Colonel Scott Gallagher sat in a chair in the corner of the room, reading from his own tablet. He looked up at Philip’s voice before climbing to his feet, automatically tucking his uniform hat under his arm.
“He’s awake,” teased the lieutenant colonel before resting his hand on Philip’s leg. “And very much lucky to be alive.”
Philip’s eyes flicked from side to side, trying to think back logically. “Sam?”
Gallagher nodded. “She got the mystics to turn on us. The whole damn Res is destroyed.”
Panic returned, and the annoying beeping increased.
“Whoa there,” continued Gallagher. “You’re okay.”
“Sam?” Philip asked again.
“She seems to have escaped.” Gallagher cleared his throat. “Samantha Gollet is currently the United States’ most wanted criminal.”
Philip tried to nod, but something he couldn’t see held his head in place.
“Hold still, there, Werner. She nearly killed you. Had your teammate not played dead and gotten to you seconds after she took off, you’d be dead. Bit into your neck and your leg.” The Lieutenant Colonel cleared his throat again, his hand patting Philip’s leg absentmindedly. “She also gave you a good shake. Err… You broke your back, Philip.”
Philip’s eyes went wide and the near-panic began to grip his chest.
“Hey, Soldier,” Gallagher snapped, drawing Philip’s attention. “You’re alive. You’re going to heal. But… but you might not walk again.”
The world morphed into a tunnel and the officer’s voice faded away. Not walk again? How could he serve his country without his legs? How could he find Sam without his legs? How could he end an escalating war without his legs?
Just as suddenly, he popped back into his body, his broken body lying in a hospital bed with his commanding officer saying something useless and encouraging. Or was it encouraging and useless?
Philip swallowed, trying to force moisture back into his mouth. “I’m okay, Lieutenant Colonel.” He lifted his hand, noting the I.V. for the first time, and waved at Gallagher when he didn’t stop talking. “I’m okay, sir. Really.”
“You’ll beat this, Corporal.”
Philip nodded. “Sure.”
“Umm…I realize you’ve been through a lot, but I need to ask you a few questions about Miss Gollet.”
“‘Kay.”
“Have you had any contact with Miss Gollet since she supposedly disappeared from the Reservation?”
Despite the various medications coursing through his system, Philip could easily remember the last time he saw Samantha—She had come back into the Res. He didn’t understand why until it was too late. Much, much too late.
“Umm…” He considered his options. He didn’t really have any options. He would remain loyal to his country to the very end. “Yes, sir.”
“Wait. What?” Clearly, the Lieutenant Colonel hadn’t been expecting that answer.
“When I went on leave. I saw her in Chinatown. We didn’t get to talk. I saw her from a distance.”
“And you never thought to report this?”
Philip’s eyes flicked up to his superior’s face. “I was on leave, sir. I should have, though. That was my mistake.”
Gallagher took a deep breath. “You never spoke to her?”
“Not right away. I tracked her down in Chicago. There was an entire underground city, so to speak, of mystics.”
“And you didn’t tell me about it?”
“Chicago wasn’t our jurisdiction, sir.”
“And the FMB? Did you report this to them?”
“No, sir.”
Lieutenant Colonel Gallagher flexed his jaw, the gears of his mind almost visible in his eyes. He bounced up on his toes a time or two, his breathing audible despite the constant sound of the machines hooked up to Philip’s body.
“You deserve a dishonorable discharge for what you’ve done.”
Philip didn’t reply. Anything he said could be used against him. If he was being candid with his superior officer, he did deserve a trial but considering he was about to get a medical discharge, he wasn’t about to incriminate himself.
“I’ll think on it for some time before I come to a decision,” the lieutenant colonel announced, much to Philip’s surprise.
He knew he had broken the rules. More than once. And, if he was being honest with himself, he was certain it was worth it. Gallagher was a career army man. The rules and hierarchy were there for a reason, and it wasn’t up to mere soldiers to decide when to ignore those rules.
Philip tried to give him a crisp nod, but once again the something got in the way. Gallagher adjusted his cover tucked under his arm, nodded again, and marched out with crisp steps. Philip knew his superior officer well enough to recognize his true disturbance. Some yelled while others drew into themselves when agitated. When Gallagher was faced with disappointment in his men, it revealed itself in the extreme correctness—every step, every seam in his uniform, etc. were to-the-book perfect. Philip’s failures had disturbed the lieutenant colonel to the extreme.

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